The United States and European allies are planning to launch surgical air attacks on the Islamic State and affiliated radical militias in Libya. The hope is to ease military pressure on a reconstituted government there and eliminate a new terrorist outpost of the Islamic State.
Although the Islamic State's rise in Libya is more a direct threat to Europe than the US, European countries lack the technical, logistical and intelligence capability to mount prolonged attacks. Hence, the absolute need for US help.
Bombing would be centered on the city of Sirte, once a political stronghold of the assassinated Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and now the center of Islamic State support, a senior NATO intelligence official told me. Readers may remember that Sirte was the last holdout against rebel forces during the 2011 civil war and is home to Gaddafi's tribe, the Qadhafha.
It should surprise no one that a marriage of convenience between Gaddafi loyalists and the Islamic State has emerged. The same thing happened in Iraq between Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein and ISIS. In Syria, to the dismay of Western governments, rebel groups of all sorts are more eager to fight the cruel government of Bashar al-Assad than the pitiless Islamic State.
In Libya, the EU and US plan to hit other terrorist and recalcitrant anti-government groups with the help of ground spotters who will choose the targets, the NATO official said. Italy and France are the biggest promoters of the plan: Italy because Libya has become a jumping off point for thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to reach European shores; France because of last year's terror attack on Paris.
The limited war strategy envisioned by the US and European allies in Libya is not new. It's been tried with variations in other Middle East conflicts, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria. In theory, military action is to go hand-in-hand with wider political reconciliation brought about by democratic, competent government. It hasn't happened.
The first application took place in Afghanistan, where US and British forces, including ground troops, battled the Taliban movement for more than a decade. The effort failed to wipe out the Taliban in part because of the endemic corruption of the Afghan government and, after years of training, the unwillingness of Afghan security forces to fight. Moreover, the Taliban enjoyed a rear area in Pakistan that was effectively off-limits to allied ground forces.
Afghans complained that the US focus on battling the Taliban and its al-Qaeda supporters eclipsed the meticulous nation-building effort needed to put Afghanistan on its feet.
The US applied a similar strategy of foreign military intervention and domestic political reconciliation to Iraq, where the Islamic State occupies a large swathe of territory. Since the summer of 2014, jets from the US and United Kingdom have bombed the Islamic State in support of Iraqi forces. Meanwhile, the central government in Baghdad was supposed to become "inclusive" and reach out to the disgruntled Sunni minority population that supports the Islamic State and other insurgents.
But the Baghdad government is dominated by parties representing the country's Shiite majority and has done little to reconcile with Sunnis. Longer-range prospects for sectarian peace are dim. And despite the bombing campaign, the war to recover territory from the Islamic State has been slow.
In Syria, a variation of the dual strategy is also in progress. The US has been hitting the Islamic State from the air while, it was hoped, "moderate" rebels would unseat the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
That possibility, always a long shot, has run into two inconvenient realities. First, it has always been unclear that there were enough so-called moderates to do the job. In the five years of civil war, the most effective rebel forces have belonged to extremist Islamic groups, of which the Islamic State is only one. In addition, Iran's continuing financial and armed support for Assad, along with Russia's military intervention (by air) on the side of his government, has ensured Assad's survival. The war is in a destructive stalemate.
Now comes Libya. The United Nations has worked out a deal in which two rival, warring governments agree to put aside their differences, unite and politically pacify the fractious country. To reduce armed opposition, this new government could then invite foreign military action to fight the Islamic States. The foreigners would bomb and end the Islamic State threat.
That's the theory. Unfortunately, internal Libyan political conflicts have already derailed a national unity agreement forged this month. And even if the new government is finally formed, it is no sure thing that Libyan ground forces, even backed by air power, have enough cohesion, discipline and firepower to hold territory now under Islamic State control.
Planning is going ahead anyway. The Obama Administration wants to look tough on the Islamic State. Europe is desperate to halt the flow of refugees and reduce the terror threat from Libya. Foreign military occupation--the alternative to limited air action--is not under consideration. What's left is pin-point bombing and a hope and a prayer that Libyan politics can work out a post-Gaddafi order. Success would be a major break with the past series of flops.